Bloomington bikers watch the trail they didn't want take shape

The Minnesota River Bottoms trail in Bloomington is a rugged 12 miles. The Department of Natural Resources is planning on paving it; purists prefer it the way it is.

The Minnesota River Bottoms trail in Bloomington is a rugged 12 miles. The Department of Natural Resources is planning on paving it; purists prefer it the way it is. Chris Chavie

The Minnesota River Bottoms trail has been a source of joy for bikers and nature lovers for years.

It’s 12 miles of shaded dirt paths, grasslands, and waterways, kept up by the efforts of the mountain bike community.

It’s also a source of conflict. The state has been trying to turn the trail into a paved path that connects the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge and the Bloomington Ferry Bridge. Some of the people who love the trail the most think that’s a really bad idea.

Dennis Porter, a biker and Bloomington resident, started the Save the River Bottoms group in an attempt to stop the paving project. He sees the trail as a rare patch of natural beauty—a place where you can really feel like you’re out of the city and lost in the woods.

“It is literally one of the most popular destinations in the state,” he says.

He might be fighting a losing battle. The trail has been under construction since last summer. That is, some of the trail. The initial $2 million alottment by the state Legislature paid for only two miles of progress—a blacktop trail, Porter says, that leads “nowhere.” And besides, after a record-breaking flood year, most of it has been underwater about half the time.

The city of Bloomington clarifies that this section of trail was chosen in order to eventually create an eight-mile loop including the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge and the I-35W bridge, which connect to the Minnesota River Greenway.

“It used to only flood in the spring,” he says. Now he’s worried the new trail will be impossible to maintain. As a Bloomington resident, he also has his doubts about the total cost of the project, and who will be footing the bill.

“There is no current funding for the remaining paved trail in Bloomington,” a recent post on Save the River Bottoms reads. “Additional funding would need to be approved at the State Capitol by lawmakers.”

This has critics raising eyebrows.

“Especially with what’s going on now [coronavirus],” Save the River Bottoms member Stephanie Johnson says. “There’s no way they’re going to be giving more money for this.”

The argument made on behalf of paving the trail has, by and large, been accessibility. The dirt paths may be fine for mountain bikers, but not so much if you use a wheelchair to get around. Ann Lenczewski, Bloomington’s former representative in the Legislature, has been the project’s biggest champion since 2013, when she authored legislation appropriating that initial $2.5 million to paving the trail.

Porter and his allies argue there are already plenty of accessible trails in the area without attempting to build a new one in the middle of a floodplain. But back in 2014, Lenczewski told the Star Tribune that opponents couldn’t “stop it,” that “the money [had] been given to complete the trail.”

That wasn’t exactly true. Phase one alone—those first two miles, still in progress—ended up getting a low bid of $3.16 million.

Lenczewski went on to resign abruptly mid-term in late 2015 to take a lobbying gig with Lockridge Grindal Nauen. The following month, the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota, which pushes for paved trails throughout the state, announced it had retained her to bend ears at the Capitol.

A few years later, this same, seemingly niche issue blew up and nearly derailed the Legislature when Republicans tried to remove Lenczewski's previous stipulation that the new trail need be paved. A 12-mile stretch of woodsy riverbank has proven to be a political bugbear for the entire state.?

Bloomington senior planner Julie Farnham is quick to emphasize that this is technically the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ project, not the city’s. However, this first leg of the project is being built on Bloomington-owned land, and city officials received a “flurry” of feedback about it in the fall of 2018.

The next leg, which the DNR hopes to build this construction season or the next, will pass through lands owned and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

“As far as I know, construction won’t start again until August,” Farnham says.

The DNR didn’t respond to interview requests, but the project page on its website cautions against using the first segment of the trail as a benchmark to price out the rest. This was a particularly tricky section, it said, full of streams necessitating bridges and culverts. The next section should “likely cost less than $1 million” based on today’s market.

Even if it seems like a long shot, Porter and the rest of the Save the River Bottoms crew aren’t giving up. They say they want a full, detailed plan from the DNR, including cost estimates and where the money will come from.